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As 520 bridge problems mount, Republicans throw cold water on transportation tax increase

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on Feb. 27, 2013 at 4:38 pm with No Comments »
March 1, 2013 3:01 pm


520 bridge pontoons under construction at Concrete Technology Corp. in the Tacoma tideflats on July 20, 2012. (Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer)
520 bridge pontoons under construction at Concrete Technology Corp. in the Tacoma tideflats on July 20, 2012. (Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer)

Problems with pontoons being built to hold up the new State Route 520 floating bridge, and estimates that the state errors will cost tens of millions of dollars to fix, are driving fresh worries among legislative Republicans about raising transportation taxes.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, though, says the state should “fix it and move on.”

House Democrats are calling for nearly $10 billion in new taxes, but the Democratic caucuses won’t be able to pass them without help from the other side. And both House Republicans and the GOP-dominated coalition in the Senate told reporters today they would demand what they describe as reforms before approving a tax package.

“Why are we taking our money and wasting it? Until I can get past that, then I have to say no,” said Chehalis Rep. Richard DeBolt, the House minority leader.

“The very first thing that comes to mind (about the House package) is there are zero reforms, zero cost-saving measures,” said Senate GOP leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville. “We understand the need to fund transportation, but for the public to have confidence in government, they have to see something different than the 520 bridge or the Columbia River Crossing bridge for us to be able to go forward.”

Schoesler said his members would likely agree with much of what House Republicans propose. Kalama Rep. Ed Orcutt is taking the lead in the House, and described some of what he wants to reporters:

  • Fifteen-year-bonds instead of 30-year-bonds, so bonded gas-tax money isn’t tied up paying off projects long after they are finished.
  • An exemption for state transportation projects from paying sales tax, reducing the cost of the work (but also keeping revenue out of the state’s operating budget, which Democrats say helps boost support in their ranks for transportation spending).
  • Scaled back environmental regulations, including the Growth Management Act that is aimed at preventing sprawl. While environmentalists see sprawl as causing more traffic congestion, Orcutt argued development in outlying areas would divert traffic from busy highways to underused rural roads.
  • Faster permitting processes, with permits awarded in 90 days.

Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, a Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans, said he would demand an end to the Department of Transportation doing its own design on major projects. State government doesn’t have the right expertise on big, one-time projects like the pontoons, he said. ”We’ve tried to do ferry designing in-house, which I think has been an utter failure. We did this pontoon design in house,” he said.

On the campaign trail, Inslee also said Washington needed to convince the public that transportation money is being spent appropriately before asking voters for money.

Today the Democratic governor said he would insist on more efficiency at DOT and accountability for those responsible for pontoon problems — but he said he believes the problem is being solved and it doesn’t need to stand in the way of a revenue package.

” “We cannot allow this problem to derail us on our vision of solving our transportation problems,” he said.

“We’ve got challenges just to keep our roads and bridges from not falling down now. So I believe we have to do what Washington has done when it has faced disturbing disappointments and challenges, which is to fix it and move on. And we are fixing these problems and we need to move on.”

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